Ralph Nader Remains a Friend of Labor
March 11, 2008
Published at Labor is Not a Commodity.
Before a nearly packed lecture hall at George Washington University last Thursday, Ralph Nader’s campaign for president announced the candidacy of his running mate, Matt Gonzalez, for vice president. Nader, who in previous election bids has run on the Green Party ticket, is campaigning as an independent, carrying his extensive career as a consumer advocate fighting against corporate interests and the duopoly of the Republican-Democratic party machine into the fray of the 2008 elections.
Many will remember the support Nader enjoyed from large portions of the labor movement in the past, especially in 2000. But with what promises to be an historic election, and amid the fervor surrounding candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Nader’s base of support among organized labor and working class Americans in general is looking even more dismal than in 2004. Where in past elections the fear that supporting Nader would spoil the results in favor of the right had left many in the labor movement – including major federations like the AFL-CIO – staunchly opposed to Nader’s candidacy, this time around Nader is so overshadowed by the excitement fueling the Democratic candidates that such spoilage would seem very unlikely.
Still, Nader remains unique to the Democratic contenders for the labor issues he is persistent about addressing – issues that seem to be off-limits for the Democratic Party. For example, none of the other candidates will talk about repealing anti-union laws like Taft-Hartley, instituting a tax on Wall Street securities speculation and cracking down on corporate welfare. These often marginalized issues should be seen as critical to the interests of the labor movement and the fact that only a candidate outside of the Republican-Democratic fold will raise these issues should give some pause about the limits of the Democrats’ labor rights credentials. There is something systemic about the machinery of the two-party system that prevents candidates from addressing these issues.
On Thursday night Matt Gonzalez opened the event by thanking Nader for offering him the position as running mate in his campaign and spoke about his political trajectory beginning with his time working as a public defender in San Francisco and witnessing the ravages of the three-strikes laws. Gonzalez outlined three major objectives of the campaign which included election reform, fighting poverty, and ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq. He discussed the crisis in U.S. democracy, the fact that the U.S. has the highest income inequality than any other industrialized Western nation, and the need for a single-payer healthcare system that is being ignored by the other candidates.
Nader’s 2008 campaign is reiterating the same analysis about the“fraudulent” two-party system that Nader has always articulated, but which arguably remains as true today as it did during the last four presidential elections in which Nader ran. The Democrats raise money from the same corporate interests as the Republicans, Nader pointed out at the event last Thursday. He also cautioned that the “Least-Worst” or“Lesser-Evil” mentality of the two-party system allows the Democrats to take much of their votes for granted. He focused a great deal on corporate money hijacking elections and how this monetarization of the electoral process signals the destruction of choice and the demise of democracy.
Nader also discussed how movements in U.S. history have been responsible for pushing for real social change, including the movements against slavery, for women’s suffrage and for labor rights. These movements, he said, often worked outside of the mainstream political parties and in many cases formed small parties of their own. This forming of alternative parties was acceptable then and should be acceptable now, he argued. But Nader said the political servility of Democrat-Republican corporate hegemony has infected the liberal intelligentsia of this country. He also decried what he called the“last-minute populism” of candidates like Hillary Clinton.
Of course, the proverbial Achilles’ heel of candidates like Nader and his ability to secure the support of the larger labor unions, for example, has always been the notion of “spoiling” electoral contests –the seemingly inadvertent consequence of splitting progressive voters and “handing” victory over to the Republican candidate. Ironically, the very fact that such a disincentive exists for alternative voices to be heard in elections – alternatives that fall outside of the very narrow area of the political spectrum encapsulated by the Republican and Democratic Parties – points precisely to the systemic restrictiveness against which Nader has been struggling and confirms Nader’s analysis of a closed democracy in which third-party candidates are told not to run. For the record, even Al Gore himself has resisted the popular impulse of blaming Nader for his “defeat” in 2000. As Nader has pointed out, candidates should be held responsible for their own losses and not point the finger at a third-party candidate. At the Thursday event, Nader challenged the Democrats to win the support of those who would otherwise vote for him instead of disparaging his candidacy as a“spoiler.”
Ultimately, the Nader-Gonzalez campaign is presented as being about increasing the voice and choice of voters, addressing the outrage of issues such as labor being taxed more than capital and non-human corporate entities being accorded the rights of citizens. Nader explained the need to end fast-track procedures that allowed for the passage of trade agreements like NAFTA, the need to end legislation in which trade trumps labor and environmental standards, and the need for corporations to be subordinated to the rights of human beings. He emphasized ending anti-union laws like Taft-Hartley, going after companies like Wal-Mart for labor abuses, and promoting “community self-reliance” in which food and products are locally grown and produced.
Even if many labor unions and activists refuse to vote for Nader for fear of taking votes away from the Democrats, the labor movement undeniably owes a degree of gratitude to Nader for his relentless election-time advocacy of issues central to the struggle for worker’s rights. If nothing else, Nader’s service to the movement has been in forcing these neglected concerns into presidential debates, challenging Democratic candidates to address labor rights issues that would otherwise be left untouched.